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Chicken Little over swine flu: Learning from the H1N1 scare

Last year's scare over a potential H1N1 flu epidemic was a bust, the WHO now indicates. With reports of another scare over a "superbug" supposedly from India, officials and media need to act with caution and restraint without stoking fears.

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Some media outlets are making much of reports that Westerners seeking low-cost medical treatment in India might have returned carrying a drug-resistant bacterial infection. But that news should be seen in light of another, less noticed news item this week: As a potential pandemic, the H1N1 flu virus was a bust.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says H1N1, also known as swine flu, is not eradicated, but it has lost its “superbug” status, becoming just another flu variant among many.

Fourteen months ago dire predictions swirled through the news media about the possible effects of H1N1. Hundreds of thousands of deaths were possible, and perhaps 40 percent of the US work force could be affected, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated. (The CDC had already declared the H1N1 public health emergency over by June 23.)

Nothing remotely close to those predictions came about. The WHO estimates the number of deaths from H1N1 in 2009 at 18,500, though it says that number is almost surely underreported. Still, it is a figure far lower than the hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide attributed to other strains of influenza every year. Why did the pandemic fizzle? “Pure good luck,” WHO Director-General Margaret Chan says, that it didn’t mutate into a more troublesome form.

European governments and medical groups have criticized the way the WHO handled the H1N1 outbreak, saying it caused unnecessary expense, including stockpiling of unneeded drugs, and undue public alarm.

Dr. Chan has defended the organization’s actions, pointing out that from the start the WHO had termed H1N1 as “a pandemic of moderate severity” from which ”most people” would recover – many without receiving any medical treatment.

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